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After an enthralling encounter at the Emirates, it was Manchester United who emerged victorious, earning a rare but crucial three points away from home against a top six opponent. It was a frantic game, full of incident, controversy, gusto and drama, already touted in many punditry circles as the game of the season so far; it is difficult to know where to begin in analysing the proceedings. That being said, here are five things we learned:
1. Manchester United were ferocious
There is no doubt that, over the course of the game, Arsenal had enough chances to win several games, let alone this one. Any match report you read will feature the statistics that reflect Arsenal’s dominance: 75% possession, 33 shots on the United goal, of which 15 were on target, 12 corners, and if you’re into that sort of thing (sorry Jeff Stelling) the ‘expected goals’ showed a final score of Arsenal 4.6 – Manchester United 1.9. However, luckily enough, goals are scored by putting the ball in the net, and not via complicated arithmetic.
The story that the statistics do not tell is that each and every Manchester United player played with aggression, intensity, and a clear desire to win. Arsenal have been publicly outed by Watford’s Troy Deeney as cowards after they collapsed late in their game at Vicarage Road back in October. That seemed to provoke a reaction from Arsenal’s players since then, as they embarked on an impressive run of form, demonstrating more fight and eagerness. Right from the start of this game though, United pressed Arsenal high up the pitch and capitalised on some loose passing from the Arsenal defence and midfield. The manner of the start to the game proved crucial as Arsenal were given no time to settle into a rhythm in the early exchanges.
Eventually, as the stats show, Arsenal did gain a level of control, but United continued to defend with vigour, blocking shots, winning 50:50 battles, and impressively defending the many set plays that were aimed at their box. The United goals demonstrated the higher level of aggression and ruthlessness United displayed, as challenges were too easily fought off from the likes of Monreal and Mustafi. This will have been particularly pleasing to Mourinho. There was a ruthless efficiency to their play that reflected their manager. They seized on the Arsenal mistakes, and punished them. They also maintained a physical dominance against their less physically robust opponents. Nothing will have pleased Mourinho more than getting one over on Arsene Wenger in this fashion, summed up in his post-match comments to the BBC: “I loved the way my team played and fought. Arsenal played in some periods amazing attacking football, but I have to say that my players deserve all the great words…. Amazing, phenomenal, fantastic… they deserved three points”. The balance of play will not concern him one iota, his team earned the victory and showed resolute commitment. As a manager, and as a fan, that is all you can ask for.
2. Mourinho took his time to park the bus
An increasingly familiar set of facts surround Mourinho’s record against the top six as Manchester United manager, failing to score in any away fixture since he took charge. He has quite rightly been accused of parking the bus, and playing for a draw, particularly in the turgid displays away at Anfield. They didn’t exactly visit the Emirates with the handbrake off, but it was a much more open game than anyone anticipated, and certainly in the first 20 minutes United pressed high up the pitch. This was not typical Mourinho, and doubtless took Arsenal by surprise.
They still played with three at the back screened by Nemanja Matic, but there were plenty of attacking options in what looked like a balanced and potent attacking unit. This team is set up to be a very high-quality counter attacking side as Mourinho continues to mould it into his image. Aligned to what is typically a solid defensive performance – having conceded just 9 goals in the 15 league games to date – there is an abundance of pace and athleticism in this line up. Lingard and Pogba broke forward to join attacks at every opportunity and to great effect, width was provided by Young and Valencia, Lukaku’s link up play was as effective as it has been all season, and Anthony Martial is in a rich vein of form and looked a constant threat.
It was this ability to launch a successful counter attack that killed the game in the second half, through the pace of Lingard and Pogba. Despite surrendering the balance of play as the game wore on, it was crucial that this ability to threaten on the break was maintained, as it was lacking from previous away displays. Arsenal can count themselves unlucky not to have scored more goals, but they proved unable to take their chances, and United were pleasingly ruthless in front of goal. Of course, in the closing stages, particularly after Pogba’s dismissal, the game turned into attack versus defence. Fans can appreciate that given the fact that the lead had been secured, and the initiative was understandably conceded. The other pleasing aspect is that, once the bus was parked and placed in position, they limited Arsenal to far fewer chances, albeit Danny Welbeck was denied a clear penalty having lured Darmian into a clumsy challenge inside the box. The side showed a re-assuring level of confidence and composure that bodes well for the coming weeks.
3. Jesse Lingard underlined his worth
It has always baffled me why any United fan has been critical of Jesse Lingard. Granted he has not always produced enough end product in terms of goals and assists to merit a regular starting spot, but he is the sort of player and character that is worth his weight in gold in the composition of any squad. Last season when he signed a new deal reportedly worth £100,000 a week, eyebrows were raised and there was a substantial fan outcry. It certainly represented a show of faith from the club towards the now 24-year-old player, but he is currently demonstrating his value.
There are so many things to endear Jesse Lingard to the Old Trafford faithful. He is a youth academy product who is blatantly passionate about the club, with pictures in circulation of him wearing the club strip as a toddler. In an era where football is full of mercenaries who will play for the highest bidder, it is re-assuring that United have a player who plays for the club he has always supported. He continues the tradition of the club producing its own players, raised with the expectations and values of this famous institution. He also clearly has an affinity with many of the other players, particularly Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford. The cultivation of a successful team has many facets, and the bond between team mates is a big part of that. It may be hard for most of us pre-millennials to understand what is happening when Lingard is joined by his enthusiastic young team mates in performing their contrived dances and jigs to celebrate goals, but it demonstrates the team spirit that exists and appears to be growing, and Lingard is always there in the centre of that nonsense. It makes an out of touch cynic like me learn to appreciate what a dab is, even if I can’t pretend to know how or why it came to exist.
More importantly, Lingard is a very good player. He is currently enjoying a purple patch that cannot be expected to last, but he does have consistency in his performances in terms of work rate, and selfless team play. He is a player Mourinho clearly trusts as he has given him a lot of playing time this season, playing both centrally and wide. Lingard is one of those players who suffers as he puts the team before himself. He is a brave and busy player. Not only is he defensively disciplined, but when United are in possession he is always in search of the ball, and offers an intelligence of movement that not many in the squad can rival. He doesn’t always produce the most eye-catching of displays, but he generally does the simple things well, and never shies away from receiving the ball. That is probably a consequence of moving through the ranks at United, he accepts responsibility and always works as hard as anyone on the field.
I have a real soft spot for him, particularly as I don’t think he has got the press that he deserves. He has earned rave reviews following his two goals in this game, and his wonder goal against Watford. What makes him such a valuable player was also demonstrated in him pressurising the Arsenal defence ahead of the opening Valencia goal. That is the sort of work rate he offers that often goes unnoticed. He has scored some excellent and crucial goals before, but there is plenty more in his arsenal (pardon the pun).
Lingard is not the most talented attacking midfielder in the league, but he does possess an excellent mix of talent and work rate. He is definitely appreciated by his team mates and the management of the club, and his attitude, versatility and quality are vital to giving the squad depth and genuine competition for places. I expect he will continue to get a lot of playing time between now and the end of the season. Mourinho afforded him his highest praise on Saturday, being a manager who like his players to perform as instructed, saying “He did what the team needed him to do”.
4. De Gea was the difference
There was a lot to praise and be pleased about from this Manchester United performance, but there can be no doubt that one man is responsible for the victory and that is David De Gea. Aside from their defensive blips, Arsenal played extremely well, and possess genuine quality going forward, particularly through Lacazette, Ozil and Sanchez. United defended well, but De Gea had to make 14 saves during the game, representing a record number for any Premier league goalkeeper since Opta stats began in 2003. He was kept extremely busy, and made at least two saves that you would not expect any other ‘keeper to be able to make. The double save from Lacazette and Sanchez was the most notable, followed closely by the save preventing Lukaku from diverting the ball into his own net. Despite scoring three goals of their own, without De Gea United emphatically would not have won this game.
In contrast to Lingard, De Gea has been widely heralded as one of the top goalkeepers in the world for several seasons now. It is hard to come up with any new superlatives to praise United’s stopper as he has now been so consistently excellent for so long. Mourinho heralded his display as the “best from a goalkeeper in the world”. Wenger said he was “absolutely outstanding” and “man of the match by a clear mile”.
De Gea’s performance was impeccable, but it hardly comes as a surprise to United fans these days. The main concern is that he will some day choose to leave the club as he so nearly did previously. Hopefully the club experience similar technical difficulties if Real Madrid come calling again.
5. There is now a Pogba-shaped hole
The downside to the game, and it is far from insignificant, was the sending off and looming suspension of Paul Pogba. Mourinho trotted out the usual “Paul is not that sort of player” line, but in my opinion he can have no complaints over the red. No matter how bizarre Bellerin’s attempt at a tackle was, Pogba went in with his studs over the ball, and it was clear dangerous play. Whilst on the pitch, though, United’s midfield talisman was excellent again, as he has been since his recent return from injury. United are a different proposition with Pogba in the team, and it is no coincidence that his return has coincided with four straight wins in the Premier league, as well as a return to goal scoring form. He has moved up a level from last season, and has offered both more goals and assists in this campaign. He possesses strength, pace and agility that no alternative options possess. With Manchester City looming large next weekend, Pogba will be a massive loss. He raises the standards of his team mates as they clearly believe and have confidence in him, and he offers a greater range and variety of passing and dribbling than any combination of Herrera, Fellaini or Carrick.
Next week against City is a massive game even at this stage of the season, as a loss would see City open up an 11-point gap at the top. In any other season, United’s record of 11 wins and two draws from their opening 15 games represents title winning form. Manchester City unfortunately have shown an unrelenting form that makes victory against their neighbours a necessity next weekend. This victory offers momentum and confidence, but the loss of Pogba is bound to impact how Mourinho approaches the game. It should be a fascinating encounter that Mourinho will be plotting to win by any means necessary.